Key Terms in Academic Writing--Online Writing Center

Knowing and understanding terms and concepts related to academic writing, and being able to apply them, will help you organize your thoughts and ultimately produce a better essay or paper.

Important terms for you to know include:


Relate information to real-life examples; ask how information "works" in a different context.


Academic argument is constructed to make a point, not to "argue" heatedly (using emotion). The characteristics of academic argument include language that is

  • impersonal (no personal references)
  • logical
  • evidence-based (examples)

The purposes of academic argument are to

  • analyze an issue or a situation
  • make a case for your point of view
  • convince your reader or listener of the truth of something.

A convincing academic argument has two elements:

  1. Assertion (your argument, what you are trying to prove), such as
    • X is better than Y.
    • Scents in the office can affect people's work.
    • UFOs are really government-regulated.

    In written argument, the argument usually is crystallized in an essay's thesis sentence.

  2. Proof (evidence to show the truth of the argument)

The concept is simple: You state your point and back it up. But the backing-it-up part is trickier, because so many things can go awry between point and backup.  Thus, the relationship between assertion and proof involves these:

  • There are different types of assertions; you need to choose one that can be proven logically.
  • There are different types of proof; you need to choose the appropriate type/s for your particular case.
  • There are many ways to influence the argument through language; you need to choose language that is dispassionate and unbiased so that you're focusing your proof on evidence instead of emotion.

What to Consider in Writing an Academic Argument

The Argument Itself

An argument can be called

  • an assertion
  • a claim
  • a thesis

Whatever term you choose, it needs to be proven.

Three examples of assertions:

  • X is better than Y.
  • Scents in the office can affect people's work.
  • UFO's are really government-regulated.

"Scents in the office can affect people's work" is an argument that probably can be proven.

There have been some studies done on the use of scents, especially in Japan, and their effect on workplace actions, workers' emotions, and productivity. It's likely that you will be able to find information on this in scientific or business journals that are written for professionals in those fields. So this actually might be provable by academic argument.

It's hard to determine whether the first example, "X is better than Y," is provable, as it's not specific enough an assertion. You'd need to define X and Y precisely, and you'd need to define the term "better" precisely in order even to approach having a provable argument. For example, the assertion "Learning through doing is more akin to the way most adults learn than learning through classroom lectures," is probably provable with evidence from psychologists, educators, and learning theorists. The point here is that an argument needs to be precise to be provable.

The last example, "UFOs are really government-regulated," may not be provable. "UFO" is a general term that needs to be more precise, as does "government" (whose?). Even if you define UFO and government, it may be impossible to find evidence to prove this assertion. Again, the point is that you won't have an argument if you don't have an assertion that can be proved.

Types of Proof

Proof generally falls into two categories: facts and opinions.

  • A "fact" is something that has been demonstrated or verified as true or something that is generally accepted as truth. For example, it's a fact that the world is round.
  • "Opinion" is based upon observation and is not as absolutely verifiable. It's my opinion that Frick and Frack argue too much.

Many students assume, incorrectly, that the more facts, the better support for an argument; and they try to load the support with dates or numbers. But the opinions of experts in the field are just as important as facts in constituting proof for an argument. Expert opinion means that a professional, well-versed in a field, has interpreted and drawn conclusions from facts.

In writing--or in analyzing--an argument, you need to ask whether the assertion has appropriate proof in terms of type and quantity.

It's not enough to argue that adults learn better by doing than by listening to lectures, and to use the experience of one adult learner to validate your argument. You'd need more than one person's experience, and you'd need both facts (generally accepted psychological and physiological observations about the way we learn) and expert opinion (studies done that confirm the facts).

Relationship Between Argument and Proof

The assertion and the proof need to relate to one another logically to have create a solid, acceptable argument. Problems commonly occur in the relationship when there are incorrect assumptions underlying the assertion, or incorrect conclusions drawn on the basis of inappropriate or insufficient proof.

For examples:

  • You can't logically argue that adult students don't like lectures on the basis of interviews with one or two adult students. You can't assume that because this situation is true for one or two adult learners, it's true for all.
  • You can't logically argue that our weather has changed on earth because of our forays into outer space. You can't conclude that one action has been the sole cause of another action.
  • You can't logically argue that we have to be either for or against a proposition. You can't assume that only those two responses exist.

In general, the assertion and any assumptions underlying the assertion need to be generally acceptable, while the proof needs to be sufficient, relevant to the assertion and free of incorrect assumptions and conclusions.

A good accessible text that examines the relationship between an assertion and proof (the nature of argument) is Annette Rottenberg's "Elements of Argument," which uses Stephen Toulmin's classic "The Uses of Argument" as its basis.

Rottenberg breaks argument down into

  • claim (the argument itself)
  • grounds (the proof)
  • warrant (the underlying assumptions)

 She explores the relationship among these pieces of argument within the context of writing good arguments. Another good text is Marlys Mayfield's "Thinking for Yourself," which has particularly useful chapters on facts, opinions, assumptions, and inferences. Still another good text is Vincent Ruggerio's "The Art of Thinking" which looks at both critical and creative thought.

The Role of Language in Argument

Language style and use are crucially important to argument.

  • Has an attempt been made to use straightforward language, or is the language emotionally-charged?
  • Has an attempt been made to argue through reliance on evidence, or does the argument rely on swaying your thoughts through word choice and connotation?
  • Is the language precise or vague?
  • Is the language concrete or abstract?

Argument exists not only in ideas but also in the way those ideas are presented through language.


  • Comparison ordinarily answers the question: What are the ways in which these events, words, and/or people are similar?
  • Contrast ordinarily answers the question: What are the ways in which they are different?

Your instructor may mean "compare and contrast" when he or she tells you to "compare." Ask questions to clarify what is expected. Try to find interesting and unexpected similarities and differences. That's what your instructor is hoping for--ideas he or she hasn't thought of yet.


You are expected to be able to answer the question: What is the exact meaning of this word, term, expression (according to a school of thought, culture, text, individual) within the argument?

Generally, your definition is expected to conform to other people's understanding of how the term is used within a specific discipline or area of study. Your definition must distinguish the term you are defining from all other things. (For example, although it is true that an orange is a fruit, it is not a sufficient definition of an orange. Lemons are fruits too).

A clear definition of a term enables a reader to tell whether any event or thing they might encounter falls into the category designated.

Examples may clarify, but do not define, a word, term, or expression.

Tip: A definition is never "true"; it is always controversial, and depends on who's proposing it.


Answer the questions: What does or did this look like, sound like, feel like?

Usually you are expected to give a clear, detailed picture of something in a description. If this instruction is vague, ask questions so you know what level of specificity is expected in your description. While the ideal description would replicate the subject/thing described exactly, you will need to get as close to it as is practical and possible and desirable.


Usually you are asked to discuss an issue or controversy.

Ordinarily you are expected to consider all sides of a question with a fairly open mind rather than taking a firm position and arguing it.

Because "discuss" is a broad term, it's a good idea to clarify with your professor.


You are expected to answer the question: What is the value, truth or quality of this essay, book, movie, argument, and so forth?

Ordinarily, you are expected to consider how well something meets a certain standard. To critique a book, you might measure it against some literary or social value. You might evaluate a business presentation on the basis of the results you predict it will get.

Often you will critique parts of the whole, using a variety of criteria; for example, in critiquing another student's paper, you might consider: Where is it clear? not clear? What was interesting? Do the examples add to the paper? Is the conclusion a good one? 

Be sure you know exactly which criteria you are expected to consider in the assigned evaluation.

If there are no established criteria, make sure you have carefully developed your own, and persuade the reader that you are right in your evaluation by clarifying your criteria and explaining carefully how the text or parts of the text in question measure up to them.


You are expected to answer the question: What is the meaning or the significance of this text or event, as I understand it?

You might be asked to interpret a poem, a slide on the stock market, a political event, or evidence from an experiment. You are not being asked for just any possible interpretation. You are being asked for your best interpretation. So even though it is a matter of opinion, ordinarily you are expected to explain why you think as you do.


You are expected to go beyond summarizing, interpreting, and evaluating the text. You attach meaning that is not explicitly stated in the text by bringing your own experiences and prior knowledge into the reading of the text. This kind of writing allows you to develop your understanding of what you read within the context of your own life and thinking and feeling. It facilitates a real conversation between you and the text.


You are expected to:

  • answer the question: What are the important points in this text?
  • condense a long text into a short one
  • boil away all the examples and non-essential details, leaving just the central idea and the main points.

A good summary shows your instructor that you understand what you have read and actually clarifies it for yourself.

  • A summary is almost always required preparation for deeper thinking, and is an important tool for research writing.
  • If you're going to test whether you really understand main ideas, you'll need to state them in your own words as completely and clearly as possible. 

Tip: Summary and summary-reaction papers are commonly assigned at Empire State University. Read more at Writing Summaries and Paraphrases.


Blend information from many sources; determine which "fits together."

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